On the morning of February 17, 1972, President Richard Nixon came out to the White House lawn to deliver a message to the American people about his plan for peace with the People’s Republic of China. China, a nuclear power, had been an implacable rival of the United States since the outset of the Cold War; yet after months of delicate diplomacy Nixon had decided to take the momentous step of making a major state visit to the Hermit Kingdom.
Speaking to the national media Nixon would say: "I am under no impression that 20 years of hostility between the People's Republic of China and the United States of America are going to be swept away in one week of talks" and, yet, he was making a "journey of peace" in an attempt to do what many American hawks said was impossible: build a constructive and peaceful relationship with the PRC.
Nixon's trip ended up as a historical turning point. His overture broke the stalemate between the two powers, and with the benefit of hindsight it is easy to see just how much he accomplished. Today the People's Republic has been transformed from an enemy into a major trading partner of the United States and a partner in the existing international order.
Furthermore, by reaching out diplomatically to a Communist country at the height of the Cold War, Nixon was able to undercut the Soviet Union and help set the stage for its collapse in the coming decade. Such opportunities for transcendent change come rarely, and it is to Nixon's credit that he was able to seize it and alter the course of history.
Today, it appears that President Barack Obama may be coming upon a similarly momentous opportunity with the Islamic Republic of Iran. At a time when many in the US claim to be locked in a new 'Cold War' with the Muslim world, the opportunity to come to peace with the country in which political Islam first came to power would be incalculably significant.
For the first time in over a decade, moderate and ostensibly peace-seeking leaders are in control of the Presidency in both Iran and the United States. If Obama can seize the initiative at this critical moment, he will have a chance to radically alter the fate of the Middle East and create his own legacy as a leader who managed to bring peace to this troubled, yet deeply significant region of the world.
In the words of Brookings Institute scholar Suzanne Maloney: "Iran is the country whose break with the West ended our innocence about the world's affections for us". However while the American relationship with modern Iran has been marked by CIA-backed coups, terrorism, the outright murder of civilians, proxy-warfare and bloodcurdlingly hostile rhetoric on both sides, there have been glimmers of hope in which each party has sought to change the poisonous relationship between them.
In 2000, reformist Iranian President Mohammed Khatami called for a "Dialogue of Civilisations" to mend the differences between Iran and the United States. In subsequent years, Iranians would hold mass candlelight vigils for Americans as they suffered through the terrorist attacks of September 11 and Iran would provide crucial aid to the US war against the Taliban. Unfortunately, these overtures were snubbed by the neoconservative government of George W. Bush which was bent on violently remaking the entire Middle East in its image.
The Bush Administration's curt response to Iran's offer of a diplomatic 'Grand Bargain' was, in the words of former Vice-President Dick Cheney, "we don’t negotiate with evil". Bush's facile subsequent designation of Iran as a member of an international 'Axis of Evil' kicked off a new shadow war between Iran and the United States, and in the words of former US Ambassador to Afghanistan Ryan Crocker "changed the course of history".
When Barack Obama came to power in 2008 offering to "extend a hand if Iran would unclench its fist" it was Iranians hardliners turn to miss an opportunity. Obama's overtures were largely ignored and the conflict between the two countries continued to ratchet up to its present level. However just when many analysts had become resigned to the likelihood of outright war between the two powers, it was the people of Iran who sent a powerful message demanding a change to the poisonous status quo.
An Opportunity to Change
With the electoral victory this year of the moderate cleric Hassan Rouhani, it appears that for the first time since the Islamic Revolution majorities in both Iran and the United States are in favour of rapprochement. Rouhani has said that he has been elected by his people with a 'mandate for change', and that he has been given the green-light by Ayatollah Ali Khamenei to seek peaceful détente with America.
In what appeared to be an American recognition of this possibility, Rouhani’s recent visit to the United Nations General Assembly was capped by a historic phone from President Barack Obama – the first direct contact between American and Iranian leaders since the fall of the dictator Reza Pahlavi in 1979. Obama expressed his belief that the issues of contention between them could be peacefully resolved and ended their call saying ‘Khodafez’ or ‘God be With You’ – a cordial ending to what could perhaps be a new beginning for the long-estranged nations.
The Key to a New Middle East
An end to the decades-long 'Twilight War' between Iran and the United States would have major implications for the future stability of the Middle East. The impetus for the ongoing proxy conflicts in Syria and Iraq would evaporate and the United States would be able to withdraw from Afghanistan more likely to leave behind a stable government than one fatally endangered by the Taliban. Meaningful peace in the region could finally be envisioned if the US and Iran reached détente.
Furthermore, a resumption of good relations between America and Iran would allow these two civilisations to once more engage in the types of trade and cultural dialogue which have been halted due to the past half-century of conflict. In the past, Americans were held in esteem by Iranians and many were considered part of the country's pantheon of anti-colonial heroes – a history which has been tragically obscured due to the present conflict.
A return to an era of cordial and respectful relations under an Islamic government would have major reverberations upon America's relations with the Muslim world at large, and could help put an end to the ongoing generational conflict with Muslim-majority countries just as Nixon’s rapprochement with China helped end the Cold War.
But the path to such an outcome will not be easy. Already neoconservatives in the United States – long bent on launching America into another major war– have mobilised in opposition to peace talks. Notably, hardline Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has made no secret of his plans to torpedo any burgeoning rapprochement and to ensure that conflict between America and Iran continues on the path towards military confrontation. If there is to be any hope of meaningful change, President Obama will have to display the leadership necessary to face down these rejectionists who remain committed to maintaining the status quo.
Delivering on 'Change'
When President Nixon made his monumental breakthrough with China, he had to confront a similar set of challenges. The United States was in the midst of another disastrous war and occupation, and hardened Cold-warriors within Nixon's own government were staunchly opposed to making any type of peace with the Chinese.
However Nixon held fast to his vision, and today we see the results. Forty years ago China and the United States were hostile powers, ideologically opposed to each other and engaged in a brutal proxy war. Today, they are close to becoming one another's largest trading partners. If Barack Obama can put an end to America's conflict with Iran; another proud, ancient civilisation similar to China, there is no telling what the two countries relationship may look like another forty years from now.
The present opening for peace with Iran is a rare historical opportunity. Like Hassan Rouhani, Obama was elected by his people with a mandate for ‘change’ from the disastrous policies of a hardline predecessor. Should Obama be able to seize this moment, he will be able to deliver on this promise both at home and abroad.
Murtaza Hussain is a Toronto-based writer and analyst focused on issues related to Middle Eastern politics.
Follow him on Twitter: @MazMHussain